For the past two years we’ve been listening closely to the stories of our people at Central. We’ve heard every elder and minister talk about how God has worked in his life to change him. We’ve visited with small group leaders and Bible class teachers. We’ve done this with our young people and with half of our adult Bible classes. We’ve asked folks to share with us a time in their lives when God was changing them. Tell us about a time when your faith grew deeper, when something about following Christ finally clicked, when you felt God’s presence and guidance in ways you never had before. Where were you when that happened? What was going on at the time? Who was a key part of your life for that moment? Tell us about a couple of times when you really grew in Christ.
And we’ve listened. And some common themes have clearly emerged. Over and over again we’ve heard the same four things. And we are convinced that God’s Spirit works in these four key areas to shape us more into the image of Jesus: Knowledge, Community, Inner Life, Mission. These are the areas where God does his transformation work. This is what we’ve heard in our own stories.
Knowledge – We’ve all experienced spiritual growth through knowledge: a Bible study that opened your eyes to the truth of God, a preacher who inspired you to deeper faith and commitment, an author who explained things in a way that really made it click, or being immersed in Scripture for two weeks at a Christian camp. Yes, we believe that God changes us through his Word. Of course, the holy Scriptures are transformative. But the Scriptures never uphold knowledge only for the sake of knowledge. It’s not just gaining more information about God. The knowledge of God is intended to transform the way we think and behave.
Community – This is by far the number one thing mentioned by our church family when we talk about how God has made us stronger in the faith or more like Christ. And we’ve all experienced it: the older couple who paid attention to you during the early years of your marriage, your small group that’s been together through thick and thin for more than twenty years, the relationships you have in your youth group. We can all look back and see where God placed the perfectly right people in our lives at the exact right times. These are the people he uses to love us, encourage us, challenge us, and support us. God works in community to deepen our faith and enrich our relationships to him and to one another.
Inner Life – This is mainly what are traditionally called spiritual disciplines. A lot of our members told us that a period of fasting, a season of intense prayer, a commitment to daily Bible reading brought them closer to God and made them stronger in the faith. This has not been a particular area of strength for us in the Churches of Christ, but we’ve all experienced spiritual growth by participating in these kinds of exercises.
Mission – These are good works done in the name of Jesus to benefit others. And I know most of us have experienced spiritual formation here: on a mission trip to Brazil or Kenya, working with the kids at Dry Bones or up at Camp Shiloh, volunteering at Martha’s Home or Another Chance House. Ephesians 2 says we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do. And Ephesians 4 tells us those works are intended by God to grow us in the spiritual maturity.
We already know this is how God works to grow our faith and make us more like Jesus. These formation zones are exactly where the Father meets us and does his best work on us, whether we’re paying attention to it or not. This is how God changes us in spite of how we might organize or program our churches. Can you imagine what would happen if we actually walked together in step with God as he transforms us? What if we paid more attention to the methods we already know God is using? Instead of just waiting for it to happen, we actually seek out these zones where we know it does happen, and we expect it to happen!
These formation zones are not steps or principles. These are not building blocks or projects. Spiritual formation — becoming like Christ — is not a strategy or a program. These are faith catalysts. What we want to do is pay more attention to these things. This is the atmosphere, the place, where God makes us into the people he uses to touch the world with his joy and peace. So we want to nurture that atmosphere. We want to create a culture at Central where all of us explore and experience all four of these zones together and expect that God will faithfully make us more into the image of his Son.